Will China’s long-term strategy in Asia lead to catastrophe?
When China declared its new air defence identification zone (ADIZ) on November 23, it caught many off-guard. Beijing now requires foreign aircrafts entering their newly-established zone to identify themselves to the authorities or face punitive measures at China’s discretion. However the zone overlaps areas that Japan, South Korea and Taiwan also claim, most importantly the disputed islands in the East China Sea that Japan calls Senkaku and China calls Diaoyu, which has seen over a year of sabre-rattling between China and Japan.
The US response to the new zone was swift. A few days after its establishment, two Guam-based B-52 bombers flew into the zone. China did not challenge them but said that they had “monitored” the American aircraft. Japanese and South Korean war planes have also challenged the new zone. Then in a stroke of brilliant geopolitical posturing, Seoul established its own zone, overlapping that of China’s. Beijing’s response was that Seoul’s action was “regrettable.”
However, China surely knew and figured into their plans the American response and the backlash their new ADIZ would cause in the region among its neighbours. But that’s the point. Unlike American diplomacy which may seem more pragmatic with clear cut objectives, though sometimes arguably short-sighted, China has a history of taking the long view and can patiently wait until its objectives and geopolitical goals play out. This pattern can be traced through its history, particularly to how the then fledgling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under Mao Zedong managed its affairs during the Korean War, and how it handled its complicated and problematic relationship with the Soviet Union (which it was at odds with for decades). It can also been seen in the early1970s when Beijing re-established ties with the US after two decades of hostilities amid ideological differences and no formal diplomatic ties.
China has been a master of applying the principles of Weiqi, the ancient Chinese game, also known as “go”, in its foreign policy decisions. Weiqi translates as a “game of surrounding pieces.” In the ancient game, the goal is to encircle your opponent, thus forcing a win, even by the slightest of margins. Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (integral in re-opening Sino-American relations in the 1970s) discusses this in his 2011 book “On China.”
“The players take turns placing stones at any point on the board, building up positions of strength while working to encircle and capture the opponent’s stones. Multiple contests take place simultaneously in different regions of the board. The balance of forces shifts incrementally with each move, as the players implement strategic plans and react to each other’s initiatives.”
“At the end of a well-played game, the board is filled by partially interlocking areas of strength. The margin of advantage is often slim, and to the untrained eye, the identity of the winner is not always immediately obvious.”
Weiqi, Kissinger postulates, is about the protracted campaign. And, without a doubt Chinese diplomacy is well-versed in this. Kissinger also writes that the art of crisis management is to raise the stakes so high that the adversary will not follow, but in a manner that avoids tit for tat.
If this is the case with China in its recent moves in Asia, then it is a dangerous game indeed. Though a case can be made for Beijing increasing its periphery in both the South China and East China Seas, the problem is that other countries may continue to push back, even forming alliances to do so. Simply put, Japan, South Korea and even Taiwan can’t afford to kowtow to China. Their survival depends on non-capitulation. If these counties did succumb, even in regard to the new ADIZ, then there will be no way to reverse those losses short of armed conflict.
China has to ask itself if it can continually confront Japan and South Korea, which are still backed by long-time ally the US, as well as conflicts and overlapping claims in the South China Sea, namely with the Philippines (another US ally) and Vietnam which is enhancing diplomatic ties with Washington and just as importantly increasing relations with India, another Asian heavy-weight. Only time will tell if China’s long term strategy of encirclement will prevail. However, it’s a dangerous game that could have catastrophic effects.
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